July 15, 2008
I grew up with gumbo. It's a staple in Gulf Coast towns; an unusual soup with a smoky, distinctive taste and a mystique all its own. At our house it always contained local seafood -- shrimp and crabs -- along with okra and filé, that powdered sassafras spice that is used in nothing else I ever knew of.
Nowadays my home town is full of trendy restaurants. If gumbo is on a menu it is usually made from a packaged mix and is comparatively tasteless if not downright nasty. We went to a place known as "Jus' Gumbo" and were offered a number of combinations that sounded like anything but gumbo. We settled on the one they said was made with a tomato roux, which made no sense to anyone in our group. Tomatoes can be a componenent of gumbo, but they can't be the centerpiece of it, and there's no way you can get them into the roux.
The roux for gumbo is unlike any other. It is made with fat and flour, but from there it's totally different. In the old days the fat called for was bacon grease, but I don't think anybody does that any more. You can use colorless cooking oil, in an equal amount to flour, but the trick is to cook the two slowly and for a long time, bringing the mixture to a brown color, dark as you like. Most like it a little darker than peanut butter, but you can go as dark as black coffee and it will make a hell of a gumbo.
The soup they brought us in the restaurant was more like cioppino than gumbo. It was bright red, spicy as chili, and I would say that the only thing it had in common with gumbo was that it was served over rice.
The word "gumbo" has come to be interpreted to mean any hodgepodge. This is misleading. Gumbo is a specific entity, requiring certain ingredients and coming up with an expected result. You can have your sausage, your smoked duck, or your seafood -- but unless they're put together in that certain way, don't call the outcome gumbo.